31 December 2010

A New Year is coming on and I have some thoughts...

As I have transitioned from the academic world to the real one, it is fairly obvious that the pace of my writing here has precipitously declined.  I do not think it will rebound, but things always changed.  I will certainly throw a holler out on twitter whenever something new is published.  With that, I am going to issue a state of the Orioles address.

The offseason is not yet over.  They picked up Derek Lee on a one year deal and may wind up with a couple of relievers.  They have overturned the left side of the infield with Mark Reynolds representing a massive upgrade at third and JJ Hardy providing a sufficient increase in talent at shortstop.  Cesar Izturis has been relegated to a defensive minded SS and potential pinch runner.

Back in October, I set up a range of options for the Orioles to take.  They addressed the major weaknesses I saw on the team (1B, 3B, SS, and SP).  At first base, I would consider Lee to be a near equivalent to Carlos Pena, which was my idea of an ideal conservative approach.  Adam Dunn represented a move that would be aggressive.  At shortstop, both options contained a hail mary prayer for JJ Hardy, which turned out to occur.  Hardy is certainly an upgrade over Izturis.  They have similar defense and Hardy provides a slight improvement in power.  If Hardy can somehow get back to his production of a few years ago, this would be a massive turn around for the O's at SS.  I doubt that happens.  Hardy's HR/FB last year was less than half of what it was during his career year.  His ISO appears to have settled in the .120 range.  At third, Reynolds is a step or two below Beltre, but a better option than my conservative approach with Juan Uribe.  Finally, starting pitcher was not considered an area for improvement, or at least not worth the price, by the O's front brass.

The Replacement Level Yankees Blog issued an early season projection with the Orioles winning on average of 70.1 games . . . about 12 games below .500.  That value does not include what LaRoche or Lee would provide.  Lee, based on James and Cairo, will see a value of about 2.5 WAR (1.5 if he is in freefall).  Lee likely replaces a greater presence of Nolan Reimold who is projected to be worth about 1-1.5 WAR.  So, we can assume that CAIRO projects the Orioles as a 71 or 72 win team.  The offense looks remarkably improved with 110 more runs being scored, but pitching will allow 28 more runs.  The pitching is so young that there is likely to be a great amount of variability in how well they will perform.  2011 will be able about the pitchers for the Orioles.

So what does all of this mean?

The Orioles are improved from last year.  Those who call this off season a disaster or a catastrophe are employing a bit of hyperbole.  The team will have improved its play at 1B, SS, and 3B.  Last year these positions had OPS+ of 78, 58, and 90 and will be replaced with players that has OPS+ of 103, 93, and 98, respectively.  Some regression should be expected for Luke Scott.  Stability or improvement should be expected from every other offensive position.  Only Scott had a career year last year.  Pitching-wise, I think we can expect Jeremy Guthrie to do worse, but the others should remain steady or potentially improve.  I guess we will see.

That said, I think we are seeing the trees, but not the forest when we look at how this team is constructed for next season.  I think it makes more sense to view this season as the culmination of Andy MacPhail's tenure with the Orioles.  He came in June 2007 and has now had 42 months to put his mark on the team.  Although, "The Plan" was never completely stated, it was assumed that what the Orioles were going to do consisted of these three things:
1. Invest in the draft;
2. Place a priority on pitching in the draft and development; and
3. Use free agency to supplement the MLB squad primarily on offense.
Crudely put, this was the "Buy the bats, grow the arms" philosophy.

The first goal has been reached somewhat unevenly.  The Orioles have been major spenders in the draft during these past four drafts.  They have not shied away from going overslot, particularly later on in the draft.  However, the Orioles have tended to be in the first five picks of the draft, which means they should be toward the top end of spending.  Also, this spending has been somewhat undermined because the Orioles tend to have few players worth compensatory picks and they also have not shied away from turning over picks for middling improvement (e.g. Mike Gonzalez).  For a team trying to resupply and continue to supply the substandard system that MacPhail discovered coming in here, forfeiting those draft picks do not help.  For these reasons, I think his tenure deserves a C+ with regard to the first goal.  He has handed out a generous budget, but has hamstrung that effort by forfeiting picks and not acquiring picks through savvy free agent pickups.

The second goal might be considered a slight failing.  Over the past four drafts, the Orioles have succeeded on these players:
2007 - Matt Wieters (marginal success) and Jake Arrieta (marginal success)
2008 - Brian Matusz (marginal success) and potential 2 MLB players (LJ Hoes, Xavier Avery)
2009 - No one looks special right now
2010 - Early, but Machado might be an important MLBer.
The bare minimum a system should produce each year are 2 starters and four cups of coffee each draft.  This should provide starters, trade pieces, and organizational depth for the club.  Such a system can resupply a team after 5-8 years.  I feel uneasy speaking ill of him because a few people who know scouting far better than I ever will in organizations outside the Orioles think very highly of him and his scouting crew.  He came to the Orioles after making his mark on the Marlins' system, so he certainly has a solid track record.  I think what hurts, especially in 2009, is his approach to finding inefficiencies in the market.  From the outside, it looks as if he tries to find diamonds in the rough.  These would be players with one or two good tools and the potential to develop others.  These are typically rough sophomores from 4 year schools, JuCos, High Schoolers, and players with injuries.  This method might actually work if the Orioles have a way to find these rough talents more than other teams.  However, it must be difficult for them to do this with about half as many employees in the scouting department in comparison to the other teams in the AL East.  A lot is made of Jordan selecting Matt Hobgood in the first round in 2009, which has pretty much been a disaster.  Obviously, the player in the Orioles' system is not the player who was drafted.  The Orioles were not cheap in 2009, spending big later on in the draft, but it is difficult to plop about 2.5MM on a guy with no projection.  HSers often lose velocity with the grueling pro schedule, so what you lose on a guy who is filled out is likely not going to be mitigated by growth.  One wonders with more eyes in the stands might have worn off the shininess that Jordan's crew saw in Hobgood.  Maybe not.  The point I am trying to make here with Hobgood is that the draft is a market full of risk.  You are talking about a system where success is basically hitting solid on 2 guys in the top ten rounds.  Jordan, when not going after obvious talents (e.g. Wieters, Matusz) appears to go safe on the wrong guys (e.g. Hobgood, Townsend) and bet on highly risky players with major question marks (e.g. Coffey).  I do not mean to say Jordan is outright failing, he and the development crew appear to be insufficiently stocking the system. The Hobgood pick based on his evaluation and maximizing the budget made sense, but the other pieces bought in by going slot do not seem to correspond to that actual value it appears others have by going for the best talent available. At best, it looks like a poor evaluation compounded with spreading out risk to commodities that were even riskier than what the eggs in one basket prospect profiled as.  This approach is operating also without the safety net that a solid participation in international free agency might provide.  If you grade amateur talent acquisition without a draft position curve, the O's get a C-.  When you recognize how great their footing was with top of the round selections, it looks like a D.

Finally, how has MacPhail done with acquiring MLB talent.  Free agency has been a failure in a couple of ways.  The Orioles cannot sign people they initially desire (e.g. Mark Teixeira, Victor Martinez) and MacPhail tends to target the wrong people (e.g. Mark Teixeira, Victor Martinez, Mike Gonzalez).  Now, I am not saying Mark Teixeira is a bad player.  I am saying that investing 1/4 of your payroll in a non-game changing 1B.  I'm sorry, but Tex is not that guy.  Victor Martinez is another questionable target.  His value is bound to his bat being quite impressive as a catcher.  As a 1B or DH, it is average.  It is Adam LaRoche.  That makes no sense, which the Tigers will learn.  They were able to sign Gonzalez, but he made no sense.  Shoring up the bullpen with an injury-prone reliever for a 70 win team makes no sense.  Losing a draft pick as a result of signing said player is pure incompetence.  True, a second rounder is not likely to be a MLB contributor, but the 6MM reliever is not getting you a trophy either.  So what is the point?  When MacPhail does try to catch lightning in a bottle, he chooses some peculiar individuals.  Ty Wigginton was not much of a solution.  He has always had a flighty bat and no defensive position.  Tejada had difficulties moving to third and his hit tool evaporated.  For a good 5MM or so, he netted the Orioles a fringe RP.  Those guys proliferate most minor league systems.  Garrett Atkins was an eye roller the second it was announced.  The best buy low move MacPhail has accomplished was signing Derrek Lee as he does stand a decent chance of having his value rebound.  Beyond him, I have a hard time figuring out who has been useful.

With Trades, MacPhail has been a bit more accomplished.  When he came into his role, the Orioles had two legitimate pieces to deal in Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard.  Tejada was coming off a poor year with most analysts saying he could no longer play shortstop and him saying he had no interest in shifting over to third.  His name was also buzzing due to age discrepancy and steroids talk.  MacPhail was able to acquire a decent MLB piece in Luke Scott and depth for the minors just before Tejada's name came out in the Mitchell Report.  This was a slight win for the Orioles who were able to get a bat and some use in a reliever with Matt Albers.  However, none of the acquisitions appear to have a long lasting effect on the franchise.  MacPhail did better with a more accomplished piece in Erik Bedard.  He was able to find a somewhat desperate suitor in Bavasi and the Mariners.  Bedard was turned into an average CF (Jones), a rotation arm (Tillman), and a closer who turned into a decent 3B prospect (Sherrill -> Bell).  That is an impressive haul.  This past offseason he was able to deal for a SS (Hardy) using a piece acquired from a previous trade (Jacobsen) and a 3B (Reynolds) for bullpen relief.  Even his only major deal for 2010 (getting Kevin Millwood) accomplished its goals (innings eating).  This has been MacPhail's best attribute while being a GM for the Orioles.  However, with some many holes on the team . . . this in and of itself has not been enough to significantly change the Orioles future.  That said, I give him a B for his aptitude for trades.

Clearly, "The Plan" has not worked out.  The Minor League system is floundering.  Significant pieces have been acquired, but they have mainly been the product of selecting choices at the top of the first round with later rounds not generating the talent the Orioles need.  The Major League is making small improvements, but much depends on emerging MiL talent that just is not there.  MacPhail has not done a poor job, he has truly been mediocre.  He is a good custodian of the team.  The team is honestly not worse off than it was.  Perhaps most troubling is that average is not good enough for the AL East.  Boston, Tampa, and Toronto appear to have much better front offices.  Boston and New York have superior amounts of cash.

I have a hard time seeing the Orioles being able to challenge for the playoffs any time soon.  To that end, MacPhail and the entire executive staff need to be overhauled.  That may simply mean changing the heads of each department or it may mean a more thorough cleaning.  Peter Angelos appears to be keeping his hands clean of the process, which has been needed for a long time.  It is unknown whether he would keep to that with a different GM.  Unfortunately, it may be true that MacPhail is the best the team can do given the current situation.

It is not working.

Happy New Year!

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